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Je suis en Paris! 8 Things I Learned on Vacation

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Part of the reason I moved to England was so I would be able to more easily travel to other parts of Europe and the world. This week, that dream was realized: I'm in Paris, just a hop, skip, and two-and-a-half hour train ride from my home.

France is about four-fifths the size of Texas, making it the largest western European country, and is, according to a BBC survey, the fourth most popular country in the world. Paris, its largest city, is a dreamscape of curlicue ironwork, grandiose statues, and leafy boulevards, which, especially in the warmer months, tends to smell alternately of baguettes, cheese, and urine (seriously).


We're currently staying in the fabled Montmartre area, once home to bohemian artists, writers, and hangers-on, now home to artists, tourists and aggressive guys who try to coerce you into buying 20 euro string bracelets. For the most part, it's been all picnics by the Seine, falling asleep in the odd museum, eating far too many baguettes, and generally celebrating the old Parisian joie de vivre. I am, however, looking forward to returning home to England, where my red and peeling nose may finally allow me to be accepted as one of their own "“ not having seen the sun in a few months, I, like other English holiday-makers before me, got a little bit too excited about it.

Anyway, I'm taking a brief break from all that baguette-ing and fromage-ing and meandering up quaint streets to offer up a few quick interesting things that I've learned about France (aside from the fact that people here will pee on anything that stands still and a few things that won't).

Also, while on this trip, I've been reading Lucy Wadham's The Secret Life of France, which has been invaluable in compiling this list as well as extremely entertaining.

1. There's a phenomenon in France called "Yoghurt," when Francophone folks sing (loudly) bizarre homophonic versions of English songs, with oftentimes comic results: Queen's "I Want to Break Free" becomes "I Want to Steak Frites." It's like Franglais, but slightly less intelligible.

2. France is the world's leading consumer of psychotropic drugs, whether prescribed by a physician or not; that fact alone is interesting, but consider also that the suppository tends to be the preferred method of medicinal delivery in France. Of course, France has some of the best healthcare in the world, so maybe suppositories and psychotropic drugs are the way to go.

Baby_Bottles_of_Wine_Paris3. The country that birthed the restaurant industry, France is still on the vanguard of strange innovation in eateries. There's Au Refuge des Fondus, a fondue place in Montmarte that serves up wine in baby bottles, complete with the nipples; at Dans Le Noir, you eat entirely in the dark, served by blind waiters; and at Le Tresor, there's a goldfish swimming in the toilet.


4. "Paris Syndrome" is a medically recognized phenomenon, a psychological breakdown that occurs when Japanese tourists travel to Paris and find the city of their imagination is nothing like the reality. So far, I haven't found myself curled in the fetal position and rocking after being yelled at by a waiter, but there's still time.

5. In the aftermath of the French revolution, it was popular to host dinner parties featuring entirely black food: black wine, black eggs, black cakes, black whatevers, sometimes served in funerary inspired dinnerware. And you could bring a live pig to the table. True story.

6. Ever a people who appreciate a good uprising, this recent global recession has prompted a series of "boss-nappings" in France: Workers have literally been kidnapping their bosses or barricading them in their offices to protest real or rumored job cuts.

catacomb7. Perhaps one of the creepiest, although most popular tourist attractions in Paris are the Catacombs, an underground ossuary containing the remains of thousands of Parisians. In the late 17th century, Paris's officials finally decided to dismantle the Les Innocents cemetery, which was so overcrowded with poorly buried bodies that it was actually making the residents of the nearby Les Halles area ill, and to move the bodies to a network of underground mines and tunnels under the city. The bodies, blessed by priests, were conducted to their new home via black-shrouded carts under the cover of night and were then stacked in regular piles underground.

The successful move of Les Innocents opened the floodgates and over the next century, more of Paris's cemeteries would be emptied and the bodies moved underground. In the 19th century, the Inspector General of the catacombs had the idea of placing the bones in decorative designs (hearts, crosses, etc.) to increase tourism. Visitors would walk the winding subterranean paths through the bones armed only with a candle and following a black line painted on the ceiling above. It's been open to the curious public ever since, although only around 200 people are allowed in at a time, to make the two-kilometer trek. Dark, damp and close, the catacombs were perhaps one of the most surreal and coolest things I've seen in a long time.

8. Now, I haven't gone up the Eiffel Tower yet because I'm pretty afraid of heights and while I'm sure the view is lovely, I'm content to look at pictures. And then there's the fact that it moves: The top of the tower actually leans away from the sun, moving as much as 18 centimeters as the metal on the sunny side expands in the heat. In hot weather, it's been known to grow 15 centimeters taller during warm weather. Not much, but too much for me.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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